Theater Review: "Cabaret"

Randy Harrison as the Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret," stopping in San Diego on its national Broadway tour.
Photo credit:
Joan Marcus

"Leave your troubles outside,” says the Emcee (Randy Harrison). “We have no troubles here.”

If only.

It’s 1929 in Berlin, a chaotic, decadent time when alcohol, drugs and sex may not have been free but were certainly easy to come by.

In the seedy Kit Kat Klub, you could watch girls dance or perhaps (for a price) get more familiar with them. 

Into this atmosphere drops American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley), an innocent looking for inspiration and a place to work on his next novel.

He finds it in Kit Kat headliner Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss), herself a British import – and is drawn into the pre-war rise-of-the-Nazis maelstrom of Kander and Ebb’s classic “Cabaret,” in a short tour run through Sunday at San Diego Civic Theatre as part of the Broadway San Diego series.

Bradshaw first meets affable local Ernst Ludwig (Patrick Vaill), who steers Clifford to Fräulein Schneider’s (Shannon Cochran) boardinghouse, where he pleads poverty and bargains for half price on a room. She demurs, but finally relents, commenting, “So what? You learn to settle for what you get.” (Ernst will turn out to be less than the hail-fellow-well-met he seems.)

Clifford and Sally move in together but have their ups and downs; the final straw is her pregnancy (the baby might be Cliff’s) and abortion.

That and the disintegrating political situation sour Clifford on Berlin so much that he decides to return home.

Meanwhile, Fräulein Schneider has a friend in fruit seller Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson).

Their tender but doomed romance -- and most especially her wonderfully poignant singing on “What Would You Do?” -- are definite highlights.

The story (based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood) still makes its political and social points starkly.

The show darkens as time passes until Sally’s almost desperate (but wonderfully sung) reprise of the title song.

“Cabaret” has seen many changes since it first opened in 1966.

This version is based on Roundabout Theatre’s 1998 Broadway revival. It is sexier (for example, the Emcee emulates Alan Cummings’ portrayal, wearing white suspenders which go down around his crotch).

And Clifford’s bisexuality is made visual.

Another change: some of the Kit Kat girls (and boys) double as instrumentalists.

Robert Cookman’s orchestra plays from the top of Robert Brill’s dual-level set. Actor/players scamper up and down the steep staircase on either side as their roles change.

Does it work? Sure.

There’s little you can do to ruin this terrific show.

Eakeley’s Clifford seems quite lost in this Germanic soon-to-be inferno and genuinely sad that he can’t rescue Sally.

Goss sings a winning version of “Don’t Tell Mama” and a poignant “Maybe This Time” before she realizes that she and Clifford are not a match.

But she really comes into her own on that second-act “Cabaret.”

Harrison’s Emcee isn’t as reptilian as some I’ve seen, but he’s brash, self-confident, well-built….and a little scary.

He has the last action of the show, and it’s a stunner.

A special bravo to lighting designers Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari, whose moody and sometimes frightening lighting is almost a character itself. 

“Cabaret” could be considered a cautionary tale, but mainly it’s a whale of a fine musical.

The details

“Cabaret” plays through August 28, 2016 at San Diego Civic Theatre, 3rd and B Streets, downtown.

Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm.

Tickets: (619) 570-1100 or broadwaysd.com